Following a series of public scholarship workshops they ran for the SSRC’s Media & Democracy Program, Kathryn Cramer Brownell and Brian Rosenwald discuss the process of writing for a public audience. As editors of Made by History, a section of the Washington Post that puts news in historical context, they describe the importance of making public engagement an integral part of scholarship, break down common challenges scholars face in bridging the academic-public divide, and offer advice on how to get a foot in the public scholarship door and write a successful pitch to an editor.
Kathryn Cramer Brownell is associate professor of history at Purdue University and an editor at Made by History at the Washington Post. Her research and teaching focus on the intersections between media, politics, and popular culture, with a particular emphasis on the US presidency. Her first book, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), examines the institutionalization of entertainment styles and structures in US politics and the rise of the celebrity presidency. She is now working on a new book project on the political history of cable television.
Brian Rosenwald is a scholar in residence at the Partnership for Effective Public Administration and Leadership Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an instructor at Penn. He is editor-in-chief of Made by History at the Washington Post and also author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States (Harvard University Press, 2019). Rosenwald has appeared on a range of television and radio programs, including on CNN, the BBC, and NPR, and written for outlets including The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and CNN.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brianros1.
To start us off, can you tell me a little about Made by History—what it is, how it started, and who writes for it?
Brian: It started because I got frustrated with reporters asking me lots of questions during the 2016 campaign while I was also writing and pitching articles without success. I would get responses like: I loved this, but I’m over budget for the month. Sometimes editors wouldn’t even respond because they were swamped. It wasn’t about the quality of the work or the ideas that might have answered some of the questions I was being asked, but that I just couldn’t find a platform. I knew that the Monkey Cage existed on the Washington Post and asked myself, “Is there a way to do this for history?” I reached out to the Post, and then it went from there.“What I think we do that’s different is our focus on analysis, on doing what scholars regularly do in their work and translating it for the public rather than simply providing a historical narrative.”
It took about nine months to build, and the goal was to give historians a place where they had a better shot of their work getting published. In turn, their research would be more visible, and they would bring their expertise to bear on current events. This also created a place for journalists, for the media, and for Average Joes who wanted that historical perspective to know where they could find it. In terms of the writers, it’s really a cross-section of people from the beginning of their careers, graduate students, to senior faculty, in any number of disciplines. We’ve had contributors from everything from music to English to sociology, political science, history—at least seven or eight different fields. But what I think we do that’s different is our focus on analysis, on doing what scholars regularly do in their work and translating it for the public rather than simply providing a historical narrative.
It sounds like y’all capture a breadth of writers and topics. Katie, do you have anything to add?
Katie: Brian really hit on our goal, which is to bring expertise—scholarly expertise—to the broader public. We really try to bring the rigor of academia to our column. Our pieces are peer-reviewed, generally in-house by our editorial team. But, if it’s a topic that goes beyond our area of expertise, we send it out for someone to review to make sure we’re bringing the best of our fields in terms of scholarly analysis. That’s something we really pride ourselves on: We try to have the rigor of a peer-review journal at the speed of a newspaper.
That transitions nicely into my next question. Since y’all have been working on Made by History for a few years now, what, in your view, is public scholarship? And how and why did you first become involved in it?
Katie: Brian started talking with me as he had this idea for Made by History. We started connecting because we both agreed that historians and scholars need to be shaping conversations about what’s happening right now. Because, if it’s not a historian talking about what happened in history, generally it’s a partisan who’s using history for a particular ideological purpose and that warps our understanding of history. When you have scholars shaping those public conversations about issues in their area of expertise, you have a more nuanced, well-rounded, and complex understanding of issues that tend to be pitted as left versus right, conservative versus liberal. But, in fact, you can show how there’s a lot more complexity in how we need to think about them in order to solve the issue. That’s what has really drawn me into public engagement. It’s not a coincidence that Brian and Niki Hemmer, who is another one of the founding editors, and I all study the history of media. We understand the importance of media conversations in justifying certain actions and shaping cultural ideas about what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. We understand the power of media. I think that’s really drawn us into some of these conversations with the public, because we realize that historians need to be shaping those conversations about history.“My draw to public scholarship is feeling like you can do good work and reach a broader audience, have more influence, get your ideas out there, and I just never totally understood the appeal of writing for a very small audience in a subfield, for example.”
Brian: I would only add one thing. Going back to graduate school, what I always found most baffling about scholars and the scholarly world is that there are people who are proud of the fact that their work is inaccessible. I literally had a professor in graduate school who was bragging to us that his book was a little bit hard to read. It was inaccessible. And you get people who hold it against others who have reached a broad audience. I never understood it, because, if you have good ideas, if you have good work, you should want to share it with the broadest audience possible—that just seems axiomatic to me, the way I’m hardwired. Because if ideas are good, you want them to reach a broad audience. You want to get them out there far and wide and have them shape things. And so, my draw to public scholarship is feeling like you can do good work and reach a broader audience, have more influence, get your ideas out there, and I just never totally understood the appeal of writing for a very small audience in a subfield, for example. We certainly want to interact with our colleagues in subfields to advance knowledge and to talk to each other and to get ideas and energize each other and all sorts of good things, but if that’s the only people you’re reaching, it strikes me that it’s a missed opportunity. Not just to shape the conversation but, like Katie says, if we’re not doing it, someone else is.
You both highlight the importance of public scholarship and make a very compelling case for it. To switch gears a little bit, could you walk me through the process of publishing an article in a public forum—from catching the news hook and making contact with an editor to publication.
Katie: If you are interested in getting your work out to the broader public, the first thing is to start thinking in advance, before the news hook even comes to the forefront. Start thinking about the relevance of your work so when something happens, you’re already prepared to write this piece. So, as you’re finishing up a book or working through research, keep an eye on current events. What’s the relevance of your work? Beyond the really fast-moving news cycle, I think always being aware of the lessons that your work may shed on the contemporary environment is useful to be thinking about as a scholar. Thus, when a particular moment comes into the news cycle, you are able to turn a piece around very quickly.“The news cycle is very fast, and so if that one particular moment comes, you need to move very quickly.”
The news cycle is very fast, and so if that one particular moment comes, you need to move very quickly. You need to think through how you would pitch and figure out who you want to pitch. The pitch needs to very specifically outline (1) what’s the news that’s happening, and (2) how does your expertise shed an essential insight into this particular development. The third component of the pitch is, again, really stating your credentials. Why are you the perfect person to write this? Have you written a book on this? Is this something that you’re researching? So, it really needs to say: “Here’s the news hook, here’s my argument about why we need my expertise to understand this news hook, and then here are my credentials.” Those are the basics of pitching. And then you want to send that information to an editor. Again, be aware of different outlets that you enjoy reading or that your colleagues are writing for. Generally, some editors love working with political scientists. Others love working with historians. Others like working with communications scholars. Be aware of: What do you like to read? Where are some of your colleagues writing? Who are they working with? This way you can reach out to those individual editors as well.
Brian: I’d like to add three tiny bullet points. The first is that people should expect that the chance of success is always low. You shouldn’t expect to hit with the first place you submit something to. You should understand that it sometimes takes three or four places. Second, people should understand that if you’re on a really hot topic you need to move fast in all aspects, which means kind of setting a time, maybe a day, to go back and forth with an editor, because sometimes if you’re MIA for that day, you’re going to hurt your ability to get this out when public attention is maximized. And third: Once your piece is out there, pitch it to the producers of radio, television shows, or podcasts that you like. Say: “Hey, I just wrote this. Would your host be interested in talking about it?” Or reach out to the hosts themselves. Because you can get a lot of what a White House I studied called “echo-press,” which entails getting kind of the base piece out there and then you have that message shared with other places. You can maximize not just your audience, but your exposure so that people see your work and might consider you the next time.
Katie, you talked a little about the pitch already, but maybe we can see if there’s more there. What advice do you have for scholars on writing a pitch that will get a positive response from editors, and what do you as editors look for in a pitch?
Katie: The key to a successful pitch is including what we call the “nut graf.” This is something that every piece has to have; it’s the meat of your pitch. It should address: Why does this area of expertise matter? What’s your argument? How does it change our understanding of this particular event as it’s unfolding? I always emphasize to my colleagues that this is not necessarily a historical argument about what happened at a particular moment in history, but how that argument’s relevant today. You want a clear discussion of the overview of what you would provide in terms of this historical analysis. But you have to have that relevance, and that connection needs to be very clear in the pitch, because an editor will jump at that chance to publish an argument or analysis they haven’t seen before. Having the nut graf is essential to the success of any piece being published.
Brian: I look for something that’s unique, something that catches my attention, something that I want to read, especially on issues that are saturating coverage—whether it’s Covid-19, racial uprisings this year, or monuments. When we’re getting dozens of pitches on the same topic—some of which have become stale because they’re past the point of general interest—I always ask myself: Is this unique? Does this catch my attention? And then, realistically, I’m always checking how much work a piece is going to involve. Is this way too long? Is it something that is inscrutable, that is completely disorganized? Or is this something that’s going to be relatively easy to turn around? Especially, when a piece addresses a really hot topic, I have to think to myself: Do I have an hour to rip this apart? Or an hour and a half? Or is this something that’s almost done, and I can run it relatively easily? But it’s really how original the angle or idea is. Is this something I want to read? If it checks those boxes, I try to make it work.“You have to think about what’s a really catchy headline. What would make people stop and want to read?”
Katie: I remember going back and forth with an editor at the New York Times when Jon Stewart was retiring. My work looks at entertainment and politics, so I pitched him an idea for a piece. We had met before, so he actually responded—I will say that a lot of editors, if they don’t want to take your piece, they will never respond, and that’s okay. Generally, a “no response” is a no. But he actually did respond, and he thought my work was interesting, but said that I really needed to make the piece unique. He mentioned how everything says that Jon Stewart is good for democracy, so he would be more interested in something counterintuitive on why he’s bad for democracy, for example. That would be something to really grab your attention. You have to think about what’s a really catchy headline. What would make people stop and want to read? You have to really try to convey that into the pitch.
The point about pitching something counterintuitive really catches me. It’s not something I would’ve thought, but it makes sense in trying to do something unique. And also thinking about the timing needed to publish a piece is important.
Brian: I would definitely say, ask yourself what you want to read. I think of my best friend; she has a PhD and is a scientist. She has two toddlers at home. Would this take one of her 20 minutes a day that she spends on herself that isn’t about housework, childcare, or other tasks outside of work? Is this something that would interest her? Because, as scholars, we may read things that someone outside academia would not. So, you have to ask yourself: Is this something that would catch people’s attention, that my friends or family would want to read if my name wasn’t on it? That’s what I think is so important about how unique a piece is, because it can capture a reader’s attention. Editors are looking for that because they have an idea of what the public wants. We get dozens of pitches a week, and we get fewer than most sections because we’re history-specific, so you have to think of yourself as the person receiving all these pitches, who can only give each 30 seconds. Does your idea catch their eye? You’ve got to capture that. It has to be something that they’re going to want to read.
Going directly off of that, what are some of the most common mistakes that scholars make in trying to bridge this divide? What do you wish you had known when you first started going it?“You need to convey that material in a similar way to a lecture course for your undergraduates.”
Katie: Do not use academic jargon. One of the biggest challenges that academics have is letting go of a scholarly literature review or a historiography. We want to bring in all of these different names and talk about methodology and theory. That’s going to lose the average reader. I think it’s really key to remember that you are the expert. You don’t have to demonstrate your expertise by talking about methodology, by talking about how your scholarship fits into the broader field. The readers are trusting that you’re an expert by the fact that you’re a PhD, you’ve published a book on this, so you don’t have to show that methodology in action. An editor is not going to want to read through it, and readers will not either. Any academic planning to write for a broader audience needs to eliminate some academic jargon and some of the expectations about situating your work within a broader literature. It’s really important to remember that you are the expert. You can talk about the different debates that people have on the causes of the Great Depression, right? But you don’t have to reference the arguments of X or Y scholar. You need to convey that material in a similar way to a lecture course for your undergraduates. You might one or two times bring in a big name that has really influenced your work or your understanding of a particular issue or topic, but I think there’s a tendency for scholars to get bogged down in the way of writing that’s so common in academia. But that approach will really make it difficult for an editor to be interested in your pitch and for the broader public to be interested in your piece.
Brian: I would add three bullet points. One, stay short and work chronologically. It’s a lot easier for us to ask you to flesh something out than it is for you or us to shorten it. You’re much better off being on the shorter end, and us saying, “can you flesh this out with more detail or more analysis?” In addition, it is much easier for a general reader to follow a story that moves chronologically. It gives it some order. A lot of times you see a lot of jumping back and forth in first drafts, and it just doesn’t seem to work as well.
The second point is not worrying about your subfield colleagues. Every so often we’ll rewrite something in a way that is bolder or that is clearer, and the author will say, “Oh, I’m worried I can’t say that because my subfield colleagues will be worried I don’t know this literature.” You really can’t worry about those people because if you want to reach a broader audience, you have to think of that audience, and those are two different audiences with two very different sets of needs and desires. Worrying about what your subfield colleagues are going to think weakens your message, and it muddies it, or it gives it less of a kick.“People need to understand that you can have really unique, influential, important ideas that don’t stem from your research, but which can make really significant contributions to public scholarship.”
The third point, and Katie says this all the time, is that you’re the expert, not just of your research area, but of the things that you lecture on and that you teach, and that you know from just really knowing the literature. We’re trained to think of ourselves as only the expert of what we’ve written a book on or an article on in scholarship. I’m always reminding myself that I know a lot more about any given topic than the average reader just from going through graduate school or just from lecturing. And you can write pieces on different topics, because a lot of times in your lectures you develop a unique synthesis of various literatures, you pull things together, you have your own interpretation. You wouldn’t necessarily write it as a scholarly article because you don’t have original research underpinning that contribution. A general reading public, on the other hand, doesn’t care that it’s based on secondary sources. God knows there are bestselling books by authors who never set foot in an archive. People need to understand that you can have really unique, influential, important ideas that don’t stem from your research, but which can make really significant contributions to public scholarship.
That’s a really good point. It’s not just about the very particular topic you spend most of your time researching. To switch gears a little bit, academia traditionally has a pretty clear sense of what “counts” for career progression and tenure, and often public scholarship isn’t prioritized. What might you say to scholars who are on the fence? Why is it important that academics engage in public scholarship? And what can public scholarship do for academics?
Katie: I have a lot of thoughts on this. I’ll try to keep them a little focused. First of all, I actually think that those beliefs—that public scholarship isn’t valued and isn’t important—are really fading away at the university today. Administrators deeply care about their faculty being involved in public conversations and that’s really valuable to them to show that their faculty are contributing to conversations outside of the university. I think that departments hopefully are going to start valuing public scholarship more and more. I certainly know that my dean is thrilled when I publish an article or when other faculty across the College of Liberal Arts publish op-eds, because it draws attention to the college, to the university, and to the expertise of that faculty member. In many universities, engagement is a component of our job. There’s a tremendous potential for people across the university to value what you are doing. So, if you are going to write for a broader audience, let your department head know, let your dean know, share that with them. There are entire media and marketing teams at universities solely devoted to creating these opportunities for you.
I also would mention that, if you are on tenure track or thinking about your tenure file, this is really good for you to be doing because it shows impact, it shows relevance, especially for those in the humanities. A lot of scientists will talk about impact, and they have ways to measure said impact. Public scholarship is a way for those in the humanities or social sciences to show impact and show reach. Documenting that you are doing this and documenting the responses you get are all things you can include in your tenure file. More broadly, I would also argue that this really helps with grants. Grant agencies want to see impact. They want to see your work have relevance outside of academia. Public scholarship allows you to be very appealing to a variety of different organizations when you’re applying for grants. Additionally, the process of thinking through your work and its contemporary relevance can also help you with grant applications and making a case for why it should be funded.
The last point I would emphasize is that it makes you a better writer. It’s going to help you think through your arguments. You can try out new arguments as you’re working through research. I just wrote a piece last week that draws on research from my new book, and the editing process made me think about where my work is actually going. It really helps you analyze the research as you’re doing it, and it makes you think about the broader impacts that it may have. Public scholarship is going to make you a sharper writer and help you connect some of the different dots of your research.“The more public engagement we’re able to do, the more that we demonstrate the value of our own scholarship and of our discipline.”
Brian: Katie is a better person to answer this question than me, because I have not parlayed this into a full-time job of any sort. But I would add two things. First, at the end of the day, books are a huge part of scholarly work, so publishers want to see you have a public presence, too, because it helps sell books, and it makes you more attractive to them. The second point would be that, realistically in a post-Covid world, some brutal decisions in academia are already happening, in which administrators are making very bottom-line decisions about departments, about what majors to offer, about what faculty to have. By doing public engagement, you are helping to build the brand of the university and its reputation. I think that they’re going to put a lot more emphasis on this going forward because it almost seems too logical not to. If you’re writing pieces for the New York Times or the Washington Post, or you’re on CNN, administrators will say: “This person is building our reputation. This person might be helping to recruit students.” I think that this is going to become more important in coming years as brutal decisions are made. It’s certainly not the scholarly ideal. It’s certainly not what we in the humanities strive for, but as part of the academic world, we’ve already seen people question the necessity of some departments. The more public engagement we’re able to do, the more that we demonstrate the value of our own scholarship and of our discipline.
Those are great points. This notion of documenting your impact and then the process also making you a better scholar, but then also being able to make the case of your scholarship and your department to your university. Those are all really salient points. The last question I have for you is—and it’s ok if you repeat something you’ve already said—if there’s one key insight that scholars should take away from this conversation or the workshops you run, what is it?
Brian: Go for it and go fast. If you’re on the fence about something, if you have an idea, try it. The worst that can happen is that it goes nowhere, and you learn from those cases all the same. But don’t hesitate. Don’t spend two days thinking about it, because a lot of times you will have missed your moment. You start building your brand by saying “yes.” I’ll repeat advice that a high-profile reporter gave to my students about journalism. She said: “The people who end up with the big assignments are the ones who say ‘yes’ to the really crappy Saturday assignments: ‘Oh, you gotta go babysit a prominent figure in case something happens.’” They get their break because something does happen, or because editors know they’ll say ‘yes’ and therefore start giving them bigger and bigger assignments. I think public scholarship is kind of the same thing. The more you write, the more you’re equipped to write fast, the more you’re someone that editors think of when looking for someone in a breaking news moment. I did a lot of 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. local television last week [during the 2020 election], like every day, which was certainly not my first preference for time slots or anything. But I realized by the end of the week I had gotten much better at doing TV. It’s a different skill set from your scholarly skill set, and you only improve by doing it. So, if you have an idea, give it a shot. The worst that can happen is it won’t work this time.
Katie: Mine is actually kind of similar, but it would be to have confidence in your expertise. Remember that you have tremendous knowledge that is incredibly valuable, and public engagement allows you to share that with wider audiences. I always looked at public engagement as an extension of my teaching, as a way to broaden the classroom and to bring your research into new arenas. So, just as you develop confidence in your teaching, I think that having that confidence in your expertise is key in public engagement.
Brian: It also makes you a better teacher. This semester especially because I’m podcasting my lectures—no videos, no PowerPoints—just me and a microphone. But some of that is public engagement, and you learn how to communicate to an audience and hold an audience’s attention. That’s really important when you’re teaching. I think there’s a synergy there—it makes you a better teacher, and teaching makes you a better public scholar.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.